The Golden State Warriors enter Sunday night’s matchup against the Washington Wizards having won eight straight, a veritable hot streak that leaves them at an impressive .629 winning percentage through 35 games.
Unfortunately, that isn’t quite good enough, given the team’s lofty expectations entering the season. The Warriors currently hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoff hunt and the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks are snapping at the their notoriously difficult ankles.
That same record would qualify the Warriors for the third seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs if they were held Saturday, and it stands to reason that Golden State’s regular season track record would improve given the opportunity to face the dreadful competition offered by the Atlantic and Central Divisions on a regular basis. Only five of the Top 15 teams in the NBA thus far this season play in the Eastern Conference, per ESPN.com’s Hollinger statistics.
That (longstanding) quality gap between conferences has created serious disadvantages for Western Conference contenders, many of which would benefit from greater parity in schedule quality. Although The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers remain atop league rankings and leaderboards – for good reason – the East’s deep and deeply flawed second tier would likely struggle if they faced more Western Conference opponents. Indeed, only one Eastern Conference team – the Toronto Raptors – ranks within the top 15 in regards to strength of schedule as of Friday afternoon.
Golden State has played the fourth most difficult schedule in the league, according to ESPN, partially due to their schedule’s lack of Eastern Conference opponents thus far (just seven through Friday). Another obvious factor however has been the surprising performances of Western teams that entered the 2013-2014 under a cloud of diminished expectations.
Although young and stocked with talent, few believed the Portland Trail Blazers would hold the top seed in the Western Conference this late in the season. The combination of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge is yielding truly exciting results on offense, generating highest offensive rating of any two-man combination in the league. Portland’s crunch time lineup of that duo plus Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum has generated an offensive rating in excess of 129, per NBA.com. The speedy Lillard is still a flawed player – horribly inefficient at the rim – but his speed and ability to score from beyond the arc pairs nicely with the rebounding and midrange shooting provided by Aldridge and Lopez, who was quite possibly the steal of the offseason.
Outside of Portland, Phoenix has shocked the league with its legitimate emergence as a fringe playoff threat. Eric Bledsoe has long had the talent and athleticism to make the proverbial leap from role player to starter, but his ascension (along with that of Goran Dragic) has sparked Phoenix to a 19-12 record. That backcourt has been aided by Channing Frye’s rediscovery of his three-point range (he’s averaging two made threes per game on 41% shooting from deep) and the Morris twins’ shared ability to score on occasion and rebound.
Finally, Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Mavericks have finally found a way for Monta Ellis to have it all. Ellis is having a career year playing within the Mavericks system – averaging 20.4 points and nearly six assists per game playing besides Dirk Nowitzki. The bulk of that scoring has come on drives, where Monta leads the league in averaging 8.3 per game, nearly two full points behind the second leading driver (Tony Parker), per NBA.com.
Nowitzki is having a vintage Dirk year as well. His 20.9 points and 5.9 rebounds the game benefit from the pick-and-roll opportunities created by Monta.
With the season approaching its halfway point, Golden State faces an uphill climb if the team has any hope of sealing home court advantage. Fortunately, with the combination Stephen Curry, Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala playing at full strength, it appears as though the team is on the right track.
Finishing up the Eastern Conference road trip with a few more trips will go a long way. It doesn’t get any easier out West.